James K. A. Smith’s little book, Letters to a Young Calvinist, is a nuanced and relational book. It avoids the sweeping polemical tone of so much modern neo-Calvinism. And it takes the reader into what Western Theological Seminary’s (Reformed Church in America) theologian J. Todd Billings calls “a wider and deeper Reformed tradition.” This is why it is a small book filled with incredible value for both pastors and faithful Christians without formal training in theology at all.
On Smith’s own blog site he writes of his new book:
Now my hope is that it finds its audience: there are all sorts of folks who I hope will read it, but I'm especially hoping it might be received by a younger generation who, like my younger self, were awakened to thoughtful Christianity by a certain stream of Reformed theology. Letters to a Young Calvinist is an invitation to see other streams of the Reformed tradition–to value the complex richness of the Reformed voices across the spectrum.
Sometimes I describe this little book as "Kuyper for Piper." The goal is to build on the young, restless, Reformed interest in the doctrines of grace by also celebrating other core themes of the Reformed tradition: creation, culture, covenant, and catholicity, with a special concern for appreciating the ecclesiology of the Reformers. In the process, however, there's also some internal critique of Kuyperianism as well.
Smith explains that justification “was the powder-keg issue that made the Reformation explode across Europe” (101). But he is right to argue that this is not the heart of Reformed theology. Abraham Kuyper wrote: “Luther’s starting-point was the special-soteriological principle of justifying faith; while Calvin’s
God is concerned for our personal salvation for sure. But he is concerned about so much more than me. His redemptive work “is bigger and wider than the rescue of individual souls” (102). Lest we forget the clear teaching of the New Testament even the doctrine of election is united with Christ. We are chosen in Him, not simply as individuals.
Paul says that God, through the cross of Christ, reconciles all things to himself, “whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:20). This means that God’s grace and salvation reaffirms the goodness of creation and is “big, expansive, complex” (102). This kind of theology challenges the rampant gnosticism of American evangelicalism and puts an end to the small, privatized views of redemption that abound in conservative churches and pulpits. Smith says the signal, prophetic contribution of Reformed theology to the American church is to remind us that God says all of creation is “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Does your understanding of the unfolding of God’s purpose underscore this central truth? Thus Calvinism, rightly understood, is what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “world-formative” Christianity (103). This is why it looks and feels unlike much of modern evangelicalism which is so consistently “world-rejecting” (103). Reformed theology labors for shalom and seeks to undo the curse in every way possible. All of this comes in only one letter titled: “Far As the Curse is Found.” It gives you an idea of what is in store for you if you read this wonderful little book.
Smith mentions N. T. Wright, quite favorably, and says Wright’s view of justification (so hotly debated among many neo-Calvinists) is very consistent with covenant theology! I could not agree more. And Smith adds that Tom Wright is correct when he says “the great emphasis [in Calvinism] is on the single plan of God, the fact that God has not changed his mind” (105). Yet, many neo-Calvinists still insist Wright doesn’t understand justification or Calvinism. The opposite is much closer to the truth of the matter but the limited perspective of some Calvinists leads them to miss these vital (core) points.
Reformed theology says God created humanity to “rule” over the earth (Gen. 1:26) thus he made male and female in his own image (1:27). This ruling, adds Smith, “takes the form of being fruitful, filling the earth, and taking care of creation” (108). The Message puts it this way: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible . . .” That says it very well.
The final letter, Letter XXIII, is titled: “Enjoying God by Enjoying Creation.” This letter combines the insights of Smith’s Reformed theology with the popular idea of John Piper, who says the chief end of man is “to glorify God by enjoying him forever.” Smith notes that Jonathan Edwards, to whom Piper owes so much, as well as St. Augustine, spoke of enjoying God as central to living the Christian life to the glory of God. Smith thus applies what he calls his own Augustinian/Kuyperian gloss on Piper’s thesis and says the chief end of man might better be understood this way: “To glorify God and enjoy him by enjoying his creation forever” (119). I like that a lot!
Smith goes on to show why his answer is not “too worldly.” It is intentionally rooted in St. Augustine, to whom Smith appeals as the initial Calvinist, and affirms ancient Christian faith. (Some might say St. Paul, or even Jesus, were original Calvinists but then if they couldn’t see the smile on my face as I write this they might stop reading at this point!)
Augustine shows that what God desires for his creatures is a “right order of love.” Says Smith, “This simply means that we are created and called to be creatures who ultimately love the Triune God, and thus find our identity and delight in that rightly ordered love” (121-22). We cannot help but love. The problem is that our love is not rightly ordered because of sin. But by God’s grace we find what we were created for: God. Thus our love is always God-directed if it is centered in Christ. Augustine argues that we were created to love God and what we truly love is what we “enjoy.” Thus if you want to know what you ultimately love find out what you ultimately enjoy because the terms are virtually synonymous (St. Augustine). Smith rightly adds, “Augustine, unlike many Calvinists, is not afraid to say that God wants us to be happy” (122)! Amen and amen.
What then happens to creation in this understanding? For Augustine the “things of this world [do not] become strangely dim” when we fall in love with Jesus. “Rather, he [Augustine] would say that while I am called to enjoy God, God’s good creation can then be received as a gift to be used. In other words, I use the creation as a means of enjoying God” (123). This also explains what is wrong with the world. We love creation more than the Creator, thus we make an idol of the world. But if we are redeemed we do not hate the creation, rather we embrace it as a means to enjoy God. Simply put, “It’s as if, once your love is rightly ordered, you get all of creation back again, a gift given by God to enjoy him” (123).
The genius of this book is that Smith offers such helpful insight at the precise intersection of faith and culture at a time when it is so lacking in the church. He sees Reformed Christianity as an Augustinian renewal movement in the catholic church. His creative use of the letter form engages young Calvinists, and older ones as well, in a rich conversation that takes the reader from Paul to Augustine through Calvin and Edwards to Kuyper and Wolterstorff. This is a generous and well-written book that might even show the non-Calvinist how Reformed Christianity can actually help to foster renewal and reform without becoming a divisive (sectarian) force in the church.
Smith ends his last letter by saying that he would take Augustine’s Teaching Christianity and Confessions to a “desert island” even before Calvin’s Institutes. Smith’s thought is really the kind of healthy, well-balanced, Reformed theology that can engage the ecumenical conversation happily and foster a genuinely missional vision of the church, something missing in so much neo-Calvinism. The danger for the young and restless Calvinists is that they often sound more like Calvinistic fundamentalists than robust Reformed Christians. There is a world of difference. Smith will help a new generation understand this if they read his excellent book. (You can buy it here and benefit ACT 3 in the process.)
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Thanks very much for these generous engagements with the book, John. I really appreciate it.
Your section regarding “world formative” Christianity brings to mind the term “pro-life” and puts it in the larger, more proper context than how it is normally used.